A diverse group of UNM students, from aspiring architects and teachers, to biologists and nutritionists, has come together this summer to explore New Mexico’s unique cultural and agricultural landscape and gain firsthand knowledge of the inner workings of the state’s foodshed. The inaugural class, supported by a two-year grant from the USDA Hispanic Serving Institutions program, consists of 14 students and four instructors traveling across the state to visit farmers, ranchers and communities committed to building and maintaining a thriving foodshed.
The first week of the field school will be spent around Albuquerque, in the Middle Rio Grande Valley. During this week, students will be splitting their time between the classroom and local field visits.
Our introduction to Albuquerque’s flourishing sustainable agriculture community began at the Los Poblanos Organics South Valley Farm, with a tour led by farm owner Monte Skarsgard. Monte runs the largest four-season CSA (community supported agriculture) operation in New Mexico, feeding over 3,500 families with regional organic food. The weekly harvest box is filled with vegetables and fruit grown on the LPO farms or on other organic farms in California, Colorado and Mexico. The regional-scale model allows members to enjoy fresh produce all year round, and to have access to a wider variety of organic produce (e.g., avocados, bananas, citrus) than can be grown in the state (but that customers still demand!). LPO’s user-friendly online ordering system has turned the CSA into a virtual farmers’ market – or food hub – for New Mexico products, such as meats, cheeses, bread, milk, nuts, honey and jam. Members can add any of these products to their weekly harvest box order.
LPO farms about 40 acres in total, with land in the South Valley and North Valley of Albuquerque and in Las Cruces. The South Valley farm boasts eight 12,000 square foot greenhouses (covering just over 2 acres) for four-season growing; currently they are filled with spring and summer crops. There are also open fields of carrots, lettuce, chard, chile, melons, squash, garlic and beans, 800 chickens, a number of pigs (fed whey from Old Windmill Dairy and spent hops from Marble Brewery) and a few horses.
During our tour, Monte discussed his journey into agriculture and the growth of his farm and CSA over the past eight years. He began with four acres, two employees and 38 members in 2003, and now has 40 acres, 35 employees and 3,300 members. Monte has seen the demand for organic food grow exponentially, and believes that there are many opportunities for young farmers to join the movement. The power of consumers’ demand is driving the marketplace, and currently the largest obstacle to expanding the local and organic food movement is getting more farmers on the ground. Plenty of arable land is available in the Albuquerque area (as evidenced by taking a short drive on Isleta Boulevard). “The thing that we need is boots on the ground and hands in the soil,” Monte says. LPO is working hard to achieve that goal. Its intern program focuses on growing farmers; seven interns have started successful small farms of their own, and six others have stayed on to build LPO’s capacity.